Liam McCormack slapped the glass hard as two Winnipeg Jets players smashed into the boards with a thud at the MTS Iceplex. He smiled, turned to his father and said "hockey, hockey".
Liam is barely 2-years old but hockey, and the Jets in particular, are already a big part of his vocabulary. And his wardrobe. He came to watch the team practice this week dressed in a Jets T-shirt with "Ladd" on back, an indication forward Andrew Ladd is already his favorite player. "He's a fan," said his dad Terry, also sporting a Jets T-shirt.
From toddlers to seniors and just about everyone in between, people in Winnipeg are overcome with excitement and anticipation of the team's season opener Sunday afternoon. Tens of thousands are expected to converge on The Forks in the city's downtown for a pre-game outdoor concert and thousands more will stick around to watch the game against the Montreal Canadiens on a giant television screen. There's another party and rock concert afterward at the nearby Winnipeg Convention Centre and just about every home, bar, banquet hall, back room and outpost will be doing something to celebrate the first real NHL game in Manitoba in 15 years.
"Our doors open at noon and we'll be giving away Jets T-shirts and hats," said Mike Spence who runs the bar in the Seaport Hotel in Churchill, Man. Spence's establishment is more than 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg, but he and his patrons still feel part of the celebrations. "The return of the Jets fits with what Canada is all about," said Spence who is also Churchill's mayor. "And it has really united the province."
Already this week an estimated 70,000 people attended an event at The Forks to kick off the NHL season, headlined by aged ex Winnipeggers Bachman & Turner. The park was packed with bikes, strollers, skateboards and almost everyone was wearing some sort of Jets gear, featuring past or present stars. The crowd erupted when fans caught a glimpse of a video of another ex Winnipegger, singer Neil Young, wearing a Jets jersey and trying to order season tickets on his cell phone. "Go Jets," he tells the camera holding a small Canadian flag.
And that was just the formal stuff. All week there have been ball hockey games on down town streets, scalpers plying their trade warily and hotels filling up with high-powered executives flying in to catch the game. Radio call-in shows have been filled with talk of ticket prices and whether fans should boo NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman at the game for allowing the team to move to Phoenix in 1996. One local singer has even written a song about Mark Scheifele, the Jets 18-year old draft pick who may not even play for the team all season.
"We knew people were going to be very excited but we've been somewhat overwhelmed by the level of it," said team co-owner Mark Chipman, who spent about a decade trying to lure an NHL franchise back to the city. On Friday his company, True North Sports & Entertainment, said 70,000 people had registered online for a monthly draw to buy just 600 single game tickets.
The players have been getting into the act as well. While many still need maps to figure out how to get around the city, some found their way to The Forks celebration Thursday. And during practice this week the team actually rehearsed saluting the crowd, gathering at centre ice and hoisting their sticks in the air to the empty venue.
"It's definitely not going to look like a regular season game," said forward Evander Kane who is from Vancouver and has been scrambling to find 15 tickets for friends and family who are coming to the game.
Head coach Claude Noel tried to keep a businesslike approach this week during practices, hoping his players didn't get too distracted. But even he signalled Friday that the excitement was getting to him. He grew up in Kirkland Lake, Ont., idolizing the Canadiens and watching their games on television while clutching a Habs bauble head.
"I'll be anxious," he acknowledged adding that this will be the first time he has coached against his childhood favorites. "Just like I would be when I played my first game when I was 5-years old. I'll be excited." So excited he invited his mother and two sisters to come and watch. "It will be fun," he said.
Amid all the celebrating one player offered a note of caution. "Is it going to last a week before it gets hard, or is it going to be Sunday first period? I don't know," said Ron Hainsey, a 30-year old defenceman. "It's important to get a good start. Nobody wants to have to crawl back from a hole."
With files from Roy MacGregor